And so, the sun sinks shyly behind Fountainbridge Brewery; Faith Brown is placed back in her rubberised coffin for another long sleep; the air-valve on the Udderbelly is unplugged and locals gather to watch fondly as the giant purple cow hurtles erratically around the filthy sky, tracing enigmatic glyphs across the heavens as it slowly deflates and falls to earth, its skin eventually coming to rest like a shroud over the witless forms of the last few standing-still-artists who grace the plaza outside the National Gallery. My credit card has developed stigmata and the blisters on my feet have finally met in the middle. Edinburgh is over, and, speaking of slow deflations, so am I. In fact you find me back in London, seated at my old familiar desk, sorting through piles of mail, chewing unpleasant gum, and silently downloading in the background a full-length Russian video called 69 Sweet Holes, vol. 2, which I am assuming is a documentary about the manufacture of Polo mints.
Thank you to everyone who submitted (through various channels) reassurances regarding Hippo World Guest Book. It continued to go -- if I may borrow from the great J. Shuttleworth -- up and down like a bride's nightie, and when they open up my heart -- as they surely will before the week is out -- they will find a little clot of sadness there still at the show's reception these last few weeks. Though on the very final day of the festival Hippo World garnered its first five-star review: not exactly a prestigious organ, true, but the way things have gone, any dream will do: and any organ, ditto. This anyway means that it earned reviews of every star rating from one (several of those) up to five: which is, happily, quite impossible to process as an end-of-term report. I did try, though, by calculating some averages, which I dare say might come in useful for onward promotional activity, thus:
HIPPO WORLD GUEST BOOK
Direct from the Edinburgh Fringe!
Mean: ** and two thirds (which rounds up to ***, obviously)
Median: ** and a half
...yeah, maybe not.
Stars are weird. When you look at them, they're in the past.
A bit more encouragingly, both Hippo World and Longwave were nominated for Total Theatre Awards: which, as they say, was nice. Neither show won in its category (Experimentation and Physical Performance respectively), which was the obvious outcome from the moment the shortlist of nominations was published, but that was fine. I'm not sure about the categories themselves, period -- it seems odd for an organization that's making ever-more strenuous efforts to tear up the rule book when it comes to pigeonholing the unpigeonholeable to be describing in such rigid and unsatisfactory terms the work that it's there to advocate -- but that's for the ladies and gentlemen of Total Theatre to muse on. The awards ceremony was nonetheless fun, of a certain kind. Guest speakers were introduced into the mix for the first time: and a good thing too -- if there's one complaint one hears over and over again about award ceremonies, it's that they're over too quickly and that people are too shy of using their time in front of a crowd and a microphone to express their opinions in single-mindedly elaborate detail. I can't quite remember now who it was -- they've all coalesced into one enormous generic bald man in a pink candystripe shirt -- who said he was going to use only one of his allotted five minutes and then spoke for seven: but I thought that deserved special commendation. Also the hapless soul whose name I didn't hear but who used her five minutes in the notlight (it's like a spotlight, but turned off) to insist that the most valuable thing we theatre makers could do culturally would be to all start working in tv: an intervention which added several minutes to the running time of the event, as everyone who followed her had to add on thirty seconds of polite but firm disagreement with her premises. Another pleasing innovation this year was the introduction of innovative special effects into the ceremony; about an hour and a quarter in to the proceedings there was a fantastic immersive sound/lighting/puppetry effect where I was suddenly in a long bright white tunnel and I could hear harp arpeggios and at the end of the tunnel a small clutch of dead relatives were beckoning me. That was really cool. After a while I was dropped back into the room just as everyone was going apeshit for Jos Houben, who won the Outstanding Achievement [or something] Award. Which sort of made everything basically all right again. (Though I nevertheless left before the end. For all I know, it's going on still.)
A number of other jolly gets-together arose from the British Council showcase, in which Longwave was one of the participating productions. There were breakfast meetings (with snortable nano-muffins: I wished I'd brought my coke-spork), and soirees, and cheesy nightclub shenanigans; but the most fun was probably the all-day seminar introducing British theatre to the large delegations from the near and middle east, and vice versa. Lyn Gardner moderated a morning panel in which I and several others (James from Stan's Cafe, Gary from Lone Twin, Andrew Dawson, the fab and foxy Eddie Ladd, Al from Gecko...) spoke more-or-less briefly about our practice: the privileging of image and movement, the tendency away from linear narrative, and so on. All fine until proceedings were opened up to the floor and the most salient question went a bit like this: "So we have come all this way for the language of Shakespeare and all you are talking about is physical this and visual that. Why have you turned your backs on poetry?" (That's a slightly hyperbolic rephrasing but not by much.) Cue unravelling of stout British Council agenda, not for the first or last time. (I had left by the time the Saudi delegation expressed its view that women shouldn't be on stage.) I'm really grateful that the British Council invited Longwave in, and I'm new at all this, and I anyway only saw a tiny fraction of the week's activity, but from my perspective I really was surprised at the amount of time the overseas delegates were obliged to spend being talked at. It's fantastic that the British Council is doing so much to support UK work in new forms and modes, but I wonder if perhaps the framing of the discussion needs a similar update?
While I'm in that neck of the woods can I draw your attention to a quite brilliant post from Andrew Haydon on the volume of work in non-traditional forms at this year's Fringe, and the questions that poses for the wider theatre culture in this country? I dare say the love-in betwixt myself and Mr Haydon (Christ, I said betwixt for no reason, I'm morphing into Russell Brand) is turning the global stomach and all manner of improper speculation is arising with regard to the apparent displacement of Lyn Gardner from the tree in which she and I were formerly k-i-s-s-i-n-g. Let me assure nauseated readers that Lyn is still being grossly supportive of my work and any rumours of her supercession in the romantic arboretum of my critical reception are quite inaccurate. Andrew is quite right to point to her pre-eminence among Edinburgh critics, but he too has done remarkable work this year in thinking through and beyond the fringe not as a chance conglomeration of atoms (which it has sometimes felt like from the inside) but as an expression of contemporary theatre culture's orientation and desires. He is developing a strain of terpsichoreomancy (my word, not his) that I suspect is already helping to shape the immediate future of theatre.
And that, if you'll pardon me a brief relapse into self-indulgence [yeah, yeah, anyone who has a problem with 'brief' or 'relapse' there can write it all down in a tear-stained letter], is why, ultimately, the critical culture of Edinburgh, particularly in respect of the disproportionately powerful print media, is so important: and why getting beaten up by it in the early days of this year's fringe tinted my experience of the whole month. I'm returning to this subject only because in the later days of the festival the Scotsman gave over room to an editorial in which it was (superficially) keen to disclaim its authority, reminding its readers that a review is simply "one person's opinion". Without further examination, or perhaps entirely from a casual punter's point of view, this sounds pretty reasonable. But for anybody with a more concentrated interest in theatre, it is surely an alarming and derelict proposition: for must it not, instantly, beg two questions? viz.: What is the role of the individual ("one person") in relation to the determination of artistic practice in a social context? And on what bases might that individual's opinions be formed and articulated? I'm not going to start unpacking those questions here and now, this is going to be a long enough post without getting into those sorts of ideas: but I can at least attest personally, as well as from a more objective critical position, to the consequentiality of their substance. "One person's opinion" stated (and frequently re-stated) in the pages of a newspaper like The Scotsman, which -- for all its magnanimity in downplaying the influence of its output -- nonetheless insists on the centrality of its position in the recording of Fringe activity, has on every level ramifications that are quickly and forcefully played out. Fewer people see slated work; this changes the relationship between affected artists and their venues, their producers and their audiences both actual and potential. This in turn has obvious financial implications. (I haven't done the math yet and I anyway made things a lot worse for myself by cancelling Henry & Elizabeth but my guess is that by being in Edinburgh this year I incurred a personal loss of around £3,500, which is about four months' earnings for me at current rates.) It also has a more distant, practically illegible but certainly palpable effect on artists' and audience's understanding of what is valued and not valued in the wider culture, and inevitably modifies their sense of what participation in that culture (effectually) requires. The downstream consequences, in terms of, for example, the way Edinburgh is used by promoters and presenters who are shopping for product to place in venues or festivals, are equally shaped to the same template. There is no paper trail to back much of this up, so it's perfectly possible for The Scotsman to issue such a glib profession of non-accountability -- aw, shucks, little old us?, they say. I had better be pretty clear therefore that this is not a high-minded protest on my part in defence either of some nebulous idea of "culture" or of a particular agenda regarding the future direction of theatre or performance. (The Scotsman is not after all that conservative; it's some considerable distance off the pace, but its attitudes are reactionary only in so far as they are ultimately unconcerned.) What bothers me is, finally, less lofty or abstract. It is simply that "one person's opinion", multiplied by however many disengaged or ill-informed reviews were published this year, changes the scope of what's possible. It changes what the next Fringe is like, it changes what the climate's like in London and around the country, it changes what work comes to the UK from overseas, it changes what funders and advocates believe is possible, it changes the estimation which audiences make of artists and of themselves, it changes the work that gets made or commissioned, it changes the sense artists have of what larger ideas they're plugging in to or standing up for. It changes the tenor of our aspirations. It changes the field of what we dare to imagine. It changes the scope of what's possible, for the worse: for the sneering, for the retrograde, for the mired-in-irony, for the familiar, the parochial, the facile, the blandly novel, the cowardly and the fake.
(Of course that's just one person's opinion.)
While we're talking about fakery and cowardice: thanks to everyone whose comments on instalment #1 of this Edinburgh diary have informed me more fully about Hugh Hughes. Since that first post, not a day has gone by that I haven't read some article somewhere that takes strenuously remedial pains to separate out the character Hugh Hughes from his creator Shon Dale-Jones, and I now feel pretty embarrassed at having been so credulous and ill-informed as to not have made before now the identification of Dale-Jones (of whom I had at least heard in connection with his company Hoipolloi, who produce the Hughes shows and have a long track record of making good, innovative, popular work for wide audiences) with "Hughes" himself. So that's a fair cop. Pace Dan Bye's comment, though, I'm not sure that knowing that Hughes is a confection helps me out particularly. All of the problems I have with the pitch and tone of the performances persist. And in fact I'm not sure that I don't feel quite a bit worse now. Disingenuousness is one thing -- it always bugged me that a stock fool like Hughes was nonetheless so handy with the multimedia, but that's hardly a fatal exception. Now, though, I'm wondering what it means to create a character like Hughes and what inauspicious attitudes (to contemporary performance and to the audiences for that performance) are collated under his name. Among the comments, the perceptive Notional Theatre advances a wretched and, one would wish, incredible theory, though it has an air of plausibility about it, that -- and this is absolutely my retelling of Notional's suggestion, so I apologise to him if I misrepresent him and recommend anyway that you look at his original post -- Hughes's work arises out of a binding together of (a) the wish to tell beautiful stories, and (b) the urge to mock the pretensions of "emerging artists" with their laptops and their autobiographical fixations. Notional appears to be saying that the upshot of this melange is that when the work achieves beauty, it is sincere; when it falls short, it was only ever taking the piss anyway. I hate to think that there's anything in that; if there is, it's contemptible. (Though as such it would be simply the latest low-point in a long-unfolding tendency in British "experimental" theatre.)
For me I think the uncomfortable element in Hughes's work -- aside from having to sit in a room with the patronising buffoon -- is a kind of dissonance between its theatrical and performative elements. Theatre and performance are not at all the same thing, though most theatre includes some elements of performance and the most scrutinised performance occurs in the context of the theatre compact. The model I tend to have in my head is of performance as a kind of island surrounded by a sea of theatre: the nature and climate of the island and the conditions of the sea vary enormously, but that's the basic relationship. In Hughes's stuff, theatre and performance are constantly arguing with each other, and each at some point is asked to behave as if it were the other. There's nothing wrong with testing that relationship, or drawing our attention to it on some level. But whereas I'm always looking (ideally) to minimise performance, Hughes wants to make it extend further into and beyond theatre; in fact I guess Hughes is exactly Dale-Jones's tool for doing so. The thing is, it's theatre that neutralizes or discharges the counterfeiting that is the principal technology of performance. So when Hughes is in my face as I leave his show, shaking my hand and wanting to give me a badge, it feels intrusive not because it breaks down a barrier between performer and audience but because it breaks the contract between performance (where he is in control) and theatre (where I am in control). In that way, Hughes is -- as they say of some stand-ups, for example -- "never off": which perhaps explains why it wasn't immediately obvious to me that he was a fiction. And that's why I find his infantilising work bullying rather than charming, and mawkish rather than magical.
Perhaps the strongest tendency to become visible at this year's Fringe -- and excitingly so -- is an engagement with and transparent disclosure of exactly that theatre/performance duality. So many pieces this year begin with the actors able to say, as themselves, hello, and to remind us that we are where we are and who we are. Tim Crouch's England explicitly locates us in the gallery and, like An Oak Tree before it, derives one thread of its power and suasiveness from its diligence in continually drawing attention to its own artifice and economy. (One of the most important things I learned from doing The Tempest in people's homes a few years ago is that if you show an audience that you do in fact have stuff up your sleeve, and then you perform the trick that they're primed to expect, they may find it all the more moving, simply because its effect is not dissipated but rather alchemised by the intangible sleights and turns of theatrical performance. The question becomes not how you do the trick but why it works, which is a much more endlessly fascinating idea to explore.) Apollo/Dionysus is entirely predicated on a candid account of the physical and psychic spaces of its presentation and the commonality of bodily presence. Filter's Twelfth Night makes us watch actors in a room, not characters in a play. Lone Twin's Alice Bell assiduously describes its own conditions, claiming and customizing the island on which its performance will take place (though it can't quite handle the consequences of that -- of which more anon). The Ethics of Progress so deftly manages the circular movement, in its case, between theatre and performance that at times it comes close to a near-perfect synthesis of them. Even Traces, the circus/acrobatics show that unexpectedly provided my far-and-away Edinburgh highlight this year, is incredibly attentive to the way its theatricality mediates between the virtuosity of its performance content and its awestruck audience. All of these pieces, in various ways, make room for the basic commitment of theatre: that you have to be able to say hello, one way or another, to your audience. It should be the easiest thing in the world; somehow, over the last four hundred years, we have contrived to make it incredibly difficult -- or, rather, we have made ourselves feel that it must be incredibly difficult. Actually, it's not. It's just different. But in the context of the prevalence of recorded / non-live media and virtual environments, it's more important than it's ever been before, and it's encouraging and really kind of exciting to see so many practitioners deducing or intuiting that challenge and meeting it enthusiastically and without fuss.
So anyway, here are a few quick notes on the stuff I saw since my last post. It's only a couple of days after the end of the festival and already this feels like a futile thing to be doing; but I dare say much of this work will have an onward life, and anyway, it's all about the sound of my own typing, right?
Let's begin with the big disappointment. Not a turkey, exactly, but turkish. The Royal Ballet of Flanders gave us William Forsythe's Impressing the Czar, a big hunk of work from the late 80s. Taken as a whole the evening is sort of a curate's Faberge egg: uneven but never less than sumptuous. The first part is sort of Forsythe doing what I love best: it's complex, difficult or impossible to read, as individuals rise and fall, levels of activity shift against each other, juxtapositions resist commentary... But it is also, dismally, picturesque, and bending over backwards to be charming and funny. Goofy. That's the word. It's Forsythe goofing off. So the precision of his drawing (which is the thing I love most about Forsythe at his best, the drawing, the writing, the -graphy in his choreography) is continually obscured or compromised by a flouncy costume or a clownish misdemeanour. I'm sure I should just relax and enjoy it but I think I would sooner concede that I am just not Billy's target audience for all this.
The second part is 'In the Middle Somewhat Elevated', a much more austere (though perfectly cheerful) piece which has been seen quite widely as a stand-alone. Not being a dance specialist, I miss the theatricality and the inventive scenography of my favourite Forsythe stuff. I like the way that he organises the periphery of this work, the way that dancers join and leave the stage field, their preparations and transitions. The dancing itself leaves me a bit cold. Also the turquoise leotards look horribly dated, though they're a good match for Thom Willems's unrelenting soundtrack, a wonky orgy of Fairlightish stabs that sounds kind of like a bad Art of Noise B-side on endless repeat play. Presumably all of these elements were at the edge of chic in 1988, but of course the modish always ages badly and now 'In the Middle...' simply comes across as the kind of dance piece that we might see being attended by the obnoxious middle-class characters in a Claude Lelouch film.
The third part I honestly have no clue. It was some sort of extended comedy sketch about an auction. It was ornate, incomprehensible and completely vacant. Unspeakable. De trop.
And the fourth... Well, something else entirely again. The entire company take the stage dressed as St Trinian's-style schoolgirls and there is a good deal of rather exciting stomping and skipping and general marauding. (What exactly is marauding? I have a feeling I've attained the great age of 34 without ever in my life having marauded. No, not even for an instant. Never been on a rollercoaster, never drunk dandelion and burdock, never marauded. My life is bunk.) It is sort of a cross between The Rite of Spring and a Chris Cunningham video for Aphex Twin. (If I wrote for The Scotsman I would here add: "on acid". And then eat a little bit of my own sick.) It is roisterous, as marauding fairly often is, and pretty irresistible, but by this stage I am a bit grumpy and my resistance is as high as an elephant's eye, so I hold out for as long as I can. I want to say it is easy -- yeah, get the whole company to dress as schoolgirls and have them bounding and twirling in intricate loops, of course you'll get your standing ovation -- but of course it is not easy, and I will say for Forsythe that I can't imagine him ever having done anything because it was easy. Quite the reverse.
I don't know, I don't have the knowledge to watch dance from the inside, so to speak, but I wondered whether ultimately what failed to convince me about Impressing the Czar was perhaps that it was the Royal Ballet of Flanders rather than Forsythe's own company. Notwithstanding artistic director Kathryn Bennett's long association with Forsythe's work, I wonder whether it's possible for dancers who are not utterly steeped in Forsythe's language and thought and instincts fully to occupy his performative world. Compared with performances of his work I've seen by Ballett Frankfurt during his tenure, and since then by his own company, I think I had a slight sense of these dancers being extremely fluent in a second language but not native speakers of it, as it were. The only way I can explain it right now is that there is a rigorous and meticulous quality about Forsythe's first-generation dancers that reminds me of what it's like to hear great players of Bach. They find a springy quality of what you might call soft precision in the tiny niche between mechanical regularity and the first hints of rubato, and it's there that the swing is, the funk. It's incredibly difficult to describe but easy to detect -- which I guess is exactly what I'm saying. You have to feel it. The quality of dancing in the Flanders Impressing the Czar was extremely high, and in a way all but faultless. But it felt like a perfect simulacrum, at one copy's distance from its originating master; like a clone devoid of the mysterious currents of spirit. And my guess is it's that spirit that made sense of the evening as a whole back in 1988 in Frankfurt. -- Why, I suppose I'm asking, does ballet hand down and pass around work of such distinction? Is it ever questioned as a traditional course? Is it only for reasons of economy and prestige that pieces are not allowed to vanish, or remain only in the repertory of their original companies? Nobody at a remove would consider remounting a Lepage piece, would they? or a Peter Brook production? I can't think of an instance other than Stan's Cafe's reconstruction of Impact's The Carrier Frequency: but that was at least partly about asking exactly these questions.
The other thing that started to bug me about Impressing the Czar -- don't worry, I'm moving on now -- was the way that so much that was supposedly exciting about it derived from its traction against the conventions of proscenium space and high-culture codes. Whereas the Fringe was full of urban and street-dance companies from all over the world who obviously have no such frame to kick against: in the absence of which, not only their skill and athleticism but also (in some cases) their innovative approach to the relative arguments of theatre and performance tend to be woefully underestimated.
Which brings us to Traces -- thankfully not underestimated either by bowled-over critics or its ecstatic sell-out audiences. Traces is the work of Les 7 Doigts de la Main, a sort of circus boyband from Montreal. Actually there are five of them, not seven, and they're not exactly a boyband because one of them's, y'know... a girl. (And in fact it's even more complicated than that: there were and still are seven of the original founding 7 Doigts, none of whom are in Traces, but who are in the new 7 Doigts show, but none of the Traces cast are. So it's kind of like how S Club 7 begat the S Club Juniors who became S Club 8 when the original S Club split. Is that right? More like that, anyway, than the Seekers and the New Seekers... Is anyone still reading this?)
Traces has been both marketed and discussed as a manifestation of 'contemporary circus' or 'the next generation of circus' and so on: which I hope it will turn out to be, but for me its remarkable heat radiates more widely. There's no doubting the circus skills on display -- being a prig and a crosspatch I tend to resist applauding individual stunts but I realised some way through that I was involuntarily saying nearly-words like "woah" and "fa" and "sheep" in response to the frequent heart-stopping moments, which must have been annoying for the persons sitting either side of me. But I tend to follow Grotowski's (eventual) disquiet at displays of such mind-boggling virtuosity, and am always looking -- as ever -- for the less performative elements that carry the theatrical experience to an audience without existing in an authoritarian or spectacular relationship with them. And for me it's in this respect that Traces excels.
The keyword that keeps recurring on the 7 Doigts web site (on the English-language pages at least) is "intimacy", and that's a pretty fair summary of what makes this show special: but intimacy can mean different things in different contexts, from a smallscale venue to a performance characterised by self-exposure of one sort of another. What it means here is that the work is steeped in a fluent and lightly-worn theatricality that allows an audience to connect and identify with the performers, to understand that these extraordinary kids are nonetheless not some breed apart but merely extensions of ourselves, who have had the imagination and the courage to become the people we dream of being, who have thrown in their lot with the magicians and the great artists. The show flows on with unflagging pace and verve but none of the headbanging relentlessness that some acrobatics displays can pursue. There are moments of stillness and quiet and immense softness. Four of the five play classical piano, so we get collaborative Chopin; Raphael sings the song that the gay kid in Fame sings, to his own guitar accompaniment, and is not all that great, and it's a beautifully frail and tender moment; we even get to watch Brad (ah! Brad... I heart Brad) drawing in felt tip on an OHP transparency -- when did you last get to see doodling at the circus? They "hang out" (beautifully choreographed), they tickle each other, they tell us who they are as individuals -- very like, for example, the Everything Changes video compilation that Take That issued when their second album came out, and there were inserts on each of the five boys and their home lives: here was Jason down his local curry house, here was Robbie kicking a football around, here was Mark doing the washing up and talking to his pet lizard... And this, ultimately, is why the 'boyband' label is apt (with the appropriate apologies to Heloise) and why it transfers so well from pop music to the circus: it's not about how photogenic the 7 Doigts moppets are, or how you can picture each of them having their own posable action figure; it's not, or not quite, about having a favourite (though, Brad, if you're reading this...); it's about this genuinely beautiful, generous-hearted refusal of the prestige that comes with great skill. They want us to know that they are just like us and that, crucially, we are just like them. Of course we're not, except in our dreams, but it's kind of them -- and more than a little inspiring of them -- to say so.
This might seem like wishful thinking in the face of a cynical contrivance by a company looking for pointers towards competitive edge in a nearly maxed-out marketplace: but I don't think so, because the intimacy and individuation is so carefully and cleverly threaded through the whole premise of the show. As its name suggests, Traces is about ephemerality: the way that the fraught liveness of the circus stunt piques the fleetness and the brevity of our whole lives, the unrecoverable articulacy of the vanished moment. The way they (occasionally) fail -- and recuperate their failures -- is central in our relationship with these performers, and something of its magnanimous bravery is in so many ways echoed through the whole piece, from the chalk marks made on the floor and almost immediately scuffed into erasure, to the slipperiness of a spoken text about (what else?) passing time. Not since Complicite's Street of Crocodiles -- perhaps the most important single work I've ever seen in terms of its influence on my thinking about theatre -- have I seen a show that so concertedly returns our attention again and again to the passage of time, both on a broad metaphysical level and, microscopically, in our momentary experience of being together in a room and watching this incredibly special event.
Not everything works; a gameshow skit about death falls horribly flat, and the cutesiness of Heloise's solo routine -- a bit of not-too-rough and tumble with an armchair -- characterises one regrettable aspect of the company dynamic: that she is never quite one of the boys, though she clearly has the strength and the skills to be so. But there are routines of such ineffable loveliness that to criticise these few off-message moments seems totally churlish. For me, the company are at their best in a sort of middle-ground between the landmark circus stuff -- the diving through hoops and hurtling up and down poles, fantastic though it is -- and the (lovely, and fundamentally necessary) hanging-out stuff. An episode where they toss a basketball about between them is so fluid and delicate, and at the same time so robust and so vertiginously complex, as to almost defy processing. Even better, in the highpoint of the show for me -- and thus the best two or three minutes I spent in Edinburgh this year -- they completely make over the idea of the skateboard routine. To only a tiny degree is it about landing tricks, quite a few of which don't come off (the day I saw it). It's much more about the concept: simply using wheels to make possible a sort of Fred Astaire (or even Esther Williams) routine of glides and leaps and grace and charm and unbelievable sophistication. There's more than a whiff of Dogtown about this lot -- though their urban edge is so unthreatening I'm sure Sesame Street could make heroes of them in the blink of an eye (or rather an I, a U, and the number 7) -- but their profound understanding of who and where they are, and who and where we are when we're with them, outstrips the Z-Boys by a mile; in other words, even their intelligence is sexy. The people who made this show -- who I'm certain number many more than the five beaming twentysomethings who bask in the standing, stamping, astounded ovation we give them at the end, which barely begins to express our delight and our gratitude -- know more about theatre than four hundred and ninety of the five hundred most acclaimed playwrights Britain has ever produced put together. Just as I did with Street of Crocs, the very next thing I did on coming out was to sit down with a notepad for an hour and try to figure out how they'd done what I'd just seen and felt them do. Not the multiple backflips or whatever... -- that stuff's easy. But making theatre that's a channel of the highest love and the most intense revolutionary inspiration. That's a whole other thing.
So I quite liked that. And then, having finished my hastily scribbled bullet-point notes on Traces it was off to the Royal Lyceum for my first live experience of The Wooster Group: their version of Cavalli's opera La Didone. Like most other British theatre makers of my stripe and generation, I'm half in awe of the Woosters and yet have a rather indistinct, unformed sense of what it is they actually do. We've all read a lot about them, but only rarely had the opportunity to witness their work first-hand, and not always managed to take those opportunities. In my case, I've also had quiet doubts that I'd like them as much in the theatre as I like reading about them (for example in David Savran's indispensible Breaking the Rules), say. Their apparent privileging of intellectual play and a kind of aesthetic just-so-ism over other concerns has sometimes seemed to me to be likely to produce work that enjoys itself rather more than it creates equivalent movement in other people. I suspect that a lot of the experimental British work that I've had problems with over the years has taken the cue of its thrall to irony and its etiolated politic of failure and despair in part from the Woosters, or more exactly from a rather partial misreading of their particular esprit. Their basic concept for La Didone -- running it in parallel with a recreation of the 60s B-movie Planet of the Vampires -- seemed likely to reinforce rather than allay such anxieties; but the opportunity finally to experience this legendary company was to all intents unmissable. I booked the cheapest ticket I could and figured the show would be interesting even if I hated it.
I loved it. Certainly it has no interests beyond itself, and such a state of transcendence is impossible for me to endorse. But on its own terms, it is thrilling in its radical openness and its concern for the integrity of its system. It is meticulously attended to, not least in the visibly live operation of sound and video mixing; it is elegant beyond reproach; and it makes the assumption of an audience that is pleased to contribute to and complete it, and that enjoys the calls being made to its intellect and discrimination: which I suspect is always the right assumption to make, even if in practice there are local or sporadic failures of nerve. It is funny, but it is also witty -- with the classical wit of a Haydn or a Marvell, say, more than the plastic wit of a Groucho. It is modern -- and modernist -- but, should it stay in the Woosters' repertory, it will not date, as the Forsythe had dated, because cybernetic systems themselves do not date, and it is at the systematic level that La Didone is a triumph.
A meet-the-company event the previous afternoon was instructive for two reasons. Firstly, it demonstrated how much the Wooster Group understand their body of work in terms of the human activity within its making rather than its relation to any exterior measure or tendency. This is a company that loves talking about itself, that accumulates and accretes and rediscovers itself and its practice through reminiscence and familiarity and jokes. A question from the floor about the ethical commitments of the work drew blank looks from Elizabeth Lecompte and most of her colleagues; I don't suppose there is really no ethical dimension to their work, they just don't think or talk about it in those terms, and in a sense their archival and anecdotal interrelations are a surprisingly adequate substitute for the idea of the powering ethos. Conversely I'm constantly thinking about the ethical ramifications of theatre and of my situation within theatre, but the target of those considerations is something I might describe as a model of theatre that is also a place in which people can live (rather than a space in which they play games and are stranded): and the Woosters' dependence on their own garage space and of the history and relationships and the psychobiography that that physical space contains and protects is -- and this is quite a revelation to me, in these terms -- a really adequate alternative route to what emerges as an ethical expression. My only problem with that is, if I hadn't been at the Q&A -- and only a hundred or so people were -- I wouldn't understand this about them in the same way, and I think I might find it hard to extrapolate from the production itself. It's fair enough that an appreciation of the totality of a company's work has to take into account the circumstances of its studio life, but the demands this makes on an audience are probably either unrealistic or constraining. So I don't quite feel in sympathy with it, but it's fascinating and exciting as a (basically comfortable) challenge to my own priorities.
The other thing that session demonstrated was how unbelievably hard to like (at least from a punter's distance, which of course is all I can speak to) is Jonathan Mills, the new director of the International Festival and the host of the discussion. My first taste of Mills was at the opening of the British Council seminar a few days previously, where he came across as pretty dry and slightly patrician. Trying to engage the present representatives of the Wooster Group -- with whom he affected an easy and nonchalant relationship while wearing panic and bewilderment all over his face -- in conversation, a few occasional glimmers of high-table humour and donnish self-deprecation were just about detectable, but in that company he really looked like a charisma sink, and some of his questions and provocations came out in language as bleak and grey as Dickensian gruel. It is completely impossible to believe that he's Australian. In fact he looks and acts as if he has never met an Australian. I have absolutely no quibble with Mills's qualifications or his curation -- this year's has been the best, or certainly the most interesting and the most self-evidently through-thought, international programme of the last ten or fifteen years; I don't know how much of it was inherited from his predecessor, but my guess is the bigger picture was largely of his composition and therefore much of the programme must surely have been his work. But if he's to intercede effectively between Festival audiences and media and the sometimes steeply challenging work that I'm pleased to see he's dedicated to -- and, perhaps even more importantly, if he's to have any chance of increasing the level of public funds that flow into the Festival -- he's really going to have to learn to walk the ditto and talk the etc. Surely these cats get media training? Surely people help them to talk to audiences and artists in more vivid and accessible terms than those to which I've so far heard him give voice?
While we're in this neck of the woods: the other main Festival piece I saw was the American Repertory Theater's Orpheus X, a music theatre piece by the performer and composer Rinde Eckert. My first encounter with Eckert -- and many people's, I'd guess, though it's not listed in his programme bio -- was his work for Bruce Nauman. You know that large-scale video installation where an intense-looking bald guy is singing at the top of his voice: "FEED ME / EAT ME / ANTHROPOLOGY", and so on? It tore up the whole Hayward Gallery at the big Nauman show a few years back. Well, so, that's Rinde Eckert, right there. So when he brought his Moby-Dick piece And God Created Great Whales to the Barbican a few years ago, I went out of interest, and liked it enough to be looking forward to seeing Orpheus X.
Intriguingly, the programme for the show promises an interval that in the event never arrives. I wonder if this is a typo, or if perhaps there had been an interval in earlier versions which was taken out when it was realised that people were not coming back for the second half? I dunno, I'm just guessing, and maybe that's unfair, but certainly I was thinking I would probably leave at the interval, and it never came, so I stayed; and from eavesdropping on other after-show conversations I know I wasn't the only one whose escape plans were thus foiled.
Which is not to say that it's a terrible show. It's just, on the whole, not quite good enough to keep you hanging on. All three singers (Eckert, soprano Suzan Hanson, and the always intriguing John Kelly) are fine: Eckert's huge, plangent, apparently effortless voice, particularly towards the top of his register, is almost violently compelling, and Kelly's appealing tenor, sounding weirdly reminiscent of Marc Almond at times, frequently gives way beautifully to his falsetto voice. The music is plashy pomo, not totally stupid by any means, though Eckert's dissonances of choice quickly become predictable; at its best it approaches the heights of Heiner Goebbels, but at its worst (where to be honest we more often find it languishing) it is dismally reminiscent of Michael Gordon at his least gnarly. The staging is slow and pedestrian but has a certain economy; the design is totally presentable and completely unsurprising, which is to say that it reproduces well in photographs, for example. There is some wishy-washy video, much of it featuring Hanson frontally nude -- which is neither illuminating on the one hand nor sufficiently gratuitous on the other to seem anything other than tasteless in its dreary coffeetable self-satisfaction. (Almost needless to say, a sequence in which Eckert himself also appears nude is carefully cropped to preserve the last vestige of his modesty. Very, very old school, dude.) Worst of all is the libretto -- there are some good lines but great long passages of such crippling bathos, you start to worry for Eckert's ego: it seems like there must have been no one around the production saying, Rinde, you know what, that really won't do.
Only a long silence near the end, while Hanson's Eurydice weeps visibly real tears for the foolish intervention that Eckert's Orpheus has lavished on her, holds any sensible drama. But even if Hanson produced them unaided, those are not, in the end, real tears: there is nothing to cry for here, nothing to see and no real chance of being genuinely moved. Moments, certainly, throughout, of beauty and cleverness. But long before the end, Orpheus X was sadly feeling like Eckert's vanity project, and, even on those terms, undistinguished and derivative and, lethally, OK.
I'd been looking forward to Filter's Twelfth Night with more than a hint of trepidation. I directed a Twelfth Night for Signal to Noise in 2001 -- a week-long run with a view to remounting it more extendedly within a year or so. That remount never came and this summer, more than ever, I've been longing for another go. It remains (with The Tempest, natch) perhaps my favourite Shakespeare play, and my personal sense of the tone of it becomes ever more developed the longer I dwell on it. So I was approaching the Filter show not only as someone with a really strong and particular take on the text, but also as someone who is constantly looking around for an opportunity to direct it: which of course has (aptly) twin corollaries: even if the production was great, I would be dreading them doing cool stuff that I'd never thought of, or, worse, dreading them doing cool stuff that I had thought of, and maybe even used in my basically invisible 2001 production, that I wouldn't be able to use in the future because they'd have got there first. (I'm sure none of this is necessary or healthy thinking, competitive and proprietorial as it is; but, as the man says, heigh ho.)
So anyway I'm delighted to say that it was a really neat production that had absolutely nothing in common with my own take on the piece (except for one little manoeuvre which I used before and would want to again, that they -- and presumably countless others -- also hit on, though they don't make it carry much weight so I could probably still get away with it...). What's really fantastic about the Filter version is -- as I say above -- that it's about spending time with actors. Not with the story, which I think would be baffling to newcomers on this account; not with the characters, who are sketched on the back of an old envelope; but with the talent and restless ingenuity of a group of really lovely actors and musicians (most double as both). The very beginning locates the style exactly: the cast are milling around on or near the stage as we take our seats; they get their clearance sign and the actor playing Orsino and Sir Andrew -- full of interesting doublings, this one -- hops up on the stage, still carrying his cup of tea, and asks first the rest of them and then us: "Ready?" This casualness of course is in its way as studied as any rigidly insulated picturebook pros-arch rendering would be, but that's not the point. It telegraphs its concern that we understand who we are, and who they are, and how we're all in the room together. In a way it's necessary because of the room (one of the Underbelly caves -- I saw a fantastic Ubu there a couple of years ago, which brilliantly rose to the same challenge), but it's also obviously the defining aesthetic of the production and, maybe, of the company. It's "let us entertain you" in the most honest sense of those words -- and regular Thompson's readers how much more I revere the idea of entertainment than you might think if you'd seen some of my work... They manage to cut the play down to seventy minutes and keep good stout singalong renditions of all the songs.
The trade-off, because of course there has to be one, is that you may never again see a Twelfth Night of such emotional nullity. There is absolutely no room here for (what always feels to me) the almost unbearable melancholy of the play, the real weight of grief and inertia and stultification, the resounding desolation even of Feste's jokes and songs. (They give 'O Mistress Mine, where are you roaming?' to Sir Toby, which is by no means an insensitive move, but it shows how little need they have of a central voice of that longing despair.) I suppose fun is sort of an emotion, I wouldn't know. But aside from that... There is no Antonio, and we barely see Sebastian before his reunion with Viola, which means that the most radical love story in the whole play is jettisoned. To be fair, there's interesting compensation: having one actor double up Viola and Sebastian -- which I've never seen done before -- leads the plot to its consummation in the form of an implied threesome, with Orsino and Olivia fawning in unison over the same yielding androgynous figure. But the motor towards that fascinating culmination is plainly the theatrical situation, its economies and licences, rather than a truly coherent reading of the play.
Great fun, though. Brilliantly inventive. I was very unsure for the first couple of minutes -- pretty brash stuff -- but it won me over, no contest. I hope it won't sound mealy-mouthed to say that it had the air of a production that could do brilliantly in schools: not so much, as I've suggested, as a compelling rendering of what I guess is probably a set text of some kind somewhere along the way, but as an inspiring and liberating expression of what acting can be, even within the orbit of Shakespeare; of the fundamentally important (but still grossly despised) idea that extant texts are there to serve theatrical productions, and not the other way about.
Or, what you will.
A few quickies (Oh God please let me write like a man):
You've Got To Love Dancing To Stick To It was my first live experience of Fringe veteran Julian Fox, whose stuff I've rather enjoyed when I've stumbled across it on Radio 4. Fox is as quintessentially English as Laurie Anderson is American: each tells small stories and sings limited but deeply reverberant songs about the easily overlooked mysteries of quotidian life in the big city. But where Anderson uses the what-goes-down-stairs-it's-slinkiness of her voice to sculpt a whole wealth of implied footnotes into the nuances of her tone, Fox's delivery is flat, frail and ever-so-slightly camp, and he therefore has to do something even more extraordinary, which is to locate the triggers for laughter and recognition in silence, in inanimation and in the micro-management of timing and choreography. I found myself crying with laughter at one point in the show, but I still couldn't tell you how he'd told me that what he was saying and doing and showing us was funny. I'd had a chat with Julian a few days earlier and we commiserated with each other at our struggle this year to draw audiences. I dunno, but I guess to tune in to Julian's work you really have to pay something close to the same attention to detail that he does, and there's hardly any folks at the Fringe who are up for that level of activity. I suppose the wall-to-wall availability of entertainment in Edinburgh -- the fact that there's so much on at any one time, and the next show you're booked in for may well start five minutes after this one's finished -- is actually awfully close to the multichannel environment of contemporary tv. Perhaps the mindset that consumers get into is that of lying on a couch going flip flip flip with the remote. You've got three minutes to entertain me. And no I don't want to press the red button.
Another first-time experience for me came with (be)longing by Curious at Theatre Workshop. Curious is the longstanding partnership between live and digital artists Leslie Hill and Helen Paris, and though I've been aware of their work for some time, particularly their connexions with the cusp of performance practice and academia -- their jointly-edited Performance and Place for Palgrave was the best book I read on theatre last year, and Hill's introductory essays actually were the best of it -- I've never seen them perform before. (be)longing is a small but reverberant piece in which experiences of yoga retreats, learning to play the guitar, and retraining as a butcher, are placed next to each other, without much in the way of explicit connection, and simply allowed to cross-resonate. I'm not sure that the experience of longing or be-longing really got invoked in me at a physical, sensual level: the perspective is in a way too cool, too measured, too analytical for that. But the clarity and the economy of what they were doing was a pleasure to sit with at the end of a long day at the end of a long month, and I'll go far further out of my way, I think, to see them again.
Unlimted Theatre's The Ethics of Progress is brilliant above all in the way that it re-sets the agenda for documentary theatre. It's a genre that got too quickly overwhelmed by a spate of verbatim presentations of political issues, many of them pretending a scrupulously dispassionate and unbiased point of view that is, of course, even less possible in the context of theatre than it is in journalism or broadcasting. The great work that Non-Fiction Theatre were doing at the turn of the millennium all-too-quickly got subsumed into less sympathetic surroundings, and David Hare's Stuff Happens at the National seemed to be considered by exactly one half of its audience to have invented a whole genre and by the other half (whom we like more, frankly) to have killed it off.
The scope of documentary theatre need be little narrower than that of documentary television: live theatre probably can't do wildlife, after all. But it can certainly do travel, and history, and Lord knows it can do biography (way, way better than it usually manages to). I'd argue it's better placed to do philosophy -- including political philosophy -- better than any other medium: not necessarily with a horrible Tom Stoppard play stretched around it. It may be able to do mathematics -- I'll let you know when I see the new Complicite in a couple of weeks. And it can certainly do science. I have a vague Fringe memory from a few years back of Jack Klaff going on about NASA (was it?) and passing round a plastic cup that he insisted contained DNA... Hm. And there have been sort of 'beauty-of-science' roadshows -- including one this year that was shortlisted for a Total Theatre award, and that's all I know about it I'm afraid.
What's great -- and properly theatrical -- about Unlimited's show, as the title suggests, is that having gadzooked us with a marvellously clear explanation of the science of teleportation (which is, it appears, no longer a purely theoretical concern), the piece seeks to interrogate the science for its fuller social implications, and to pose some questions about those ramifications and their challenge to our present communal values and beliefs. I couldn't honestly say I thought The Ethics of Progress went after those questions with great precision, partly because it's dealing with hypotheticals throughout: "What if this happens...?" To which the answer is "We just don't know." And the answer to the (perfectly correct) "We should talk about it in advance anyway" is basically "But we don't quite know what we're talking about yet", and before long the whole thing is threatening to turn into the dismal cacophony of listeners to Radio 4's PM being invited to text in their opinions about stuff they know bum-all about. The complexity of the issues at the edge of scientific research isn't simply ripe for examination through an ethical lens: it demands an updated language of, if not a whole new dimension of, ethics, and in a way we have to trust that for every smart scientist working on teleportation and the mysteries of entanglement there's at least one equally smart professor of ethics (or linguistics even) who's going to help us frame the questions we need to be asking. But the sense of being part of that debate and slowly coming to a fuller understanding of the issues is nonetheless vital to everybody.
Presumably in other contexts, on tour and in schools and so on, there's time for a post-show discussion so that people really can start the important work of conversation; there's something lopsided about The Ethics of Progress as a stand-alone lecture. Nonetheless, it's a terrific presentation, beautifully constructed, with some really inventive and sophisticated video illustrating the tricky concepts, and the indefatigable Jon Spooner is at his most relaxed and watchable as our guide. And to return to this trend yet again, the piece goes out of its way to place Spooner, and all of us, in the here and now, and genially to locate the unacknowledged shapes of our lives before proceeding. It's the first promise of theatre, upon which all the others are stacked. Remember in The West Wing, when Mr Willis of Ohio remarks at the end of a discussion about the methodologies for conducting the U.S. Census:
"I think the problems that we're going to face in the new century are far beyond the Wisdom of Solomon, let alone me. But I think the right place to start is to say: fair is fair. This is who we are. These are our numbers."
Which, come to think of it, is why I still count Stan's Cafe's Of All The People In All The World as one of the greatest and most important pieces of theatre I've ever seen.
Lone Twin's Alice Bell is smart and fascinating if not wholly convincing. It's narrative, character-based theatre through the most oblique of means: the nearest thing I've seen I guess is the strident naivete of Richard Maxwell's work, though the alienation that Lone Twin exact on their audience is way softer and sweeter. It's a really irrepressibly cheerful show which would quickly earn the trust of a non-specialist audience. (The performance I saw was mostly attended by yawning British Council delegates finding decreasingly subtle ways to check their watches.) For all of Lone Twin's playing-up of the 'conventional' aspects of the piece (I guess by comparison with their durational community-based work), it's in its way as stylised as kabuki and, most notably, advances its narrative not so much through scenes as through pretty unleavened games and exercises. In a way my early work looked a bit like this, lump after lump of material that had been generated through playing rule- and constraint-based games in a room and then presented in a line that sort of told a story. The text is predominantly based on lists and patterns and occasional pastiche, and on simplistic linking narratives: think Tim Etchells writes Puss in Boots, but without the rubbishy performance aesthetic of FE.
In fact the performances are quite excellent. And though I feel like I've finally seen enough physical theatre ukuleles, they're used to fine effect here ("Put the little guitar down!") and the pure song- and movement-based sequences are the best of the bunch: the extended centrepiece, in which Alice Bell demonstrates to her flatmate what she likes doing in her spare time through an almost endlessly repeated sequence of gestures and cries, eventually to the accompaniment of massed ukuleles, develops a fearsome and sublime momentum that embeds itself in your brain like a Crazy Frog single. (But quite a bit more welcome.)
The only problem, but it's a crippling one for me I'm afraid, is that the narrative is partly based on a childlike rendering of a half-formed terrorist threat. One of the characters, wearing a Mexican wrestler's mask, is not like the others and wants to harm them and will not agree to peaceful co-existence. (He has an introductory soliloquy that becomes almost joyous in its scattergun expression of banal and nihilistic hatred.) In a way, the infantile simplicity of the set-up tension between good and evil can for much of the show either be interpreted as satirising the popular cartoon conception of, say, Al-Qaeda, or it can be fairly easily ignored. But the end of the piece has the evildoer confronting our heroine; she is given a bomb to hold, which will explode if she continues to hold it and explode if she tries to throw it away. So, the bomb goes off. Blackout. Then, without a breath, another cheerful ukulele song which tells us "Thank you for coming to our show", etc. I dare say it's meant to be as jarring as it is, but the effect of that jarring is retroactively to throw into contempt the simplicity of our relationship with the piece up until that point, our complicity with its naive tenor: and I very much doubt that that's Lone Twin's intention. Perhaps they're merely after a fairytale that ends sadly (as so many do in their pre-Disney versions), after which we're jauntily reassured that it's only a play. But the dissonance is too great. Remind us we're all real, sure: but real people don't get blown up by cartoon bombs.
I'll be really interested to see where Lone Twin Theatre -- Gary Winters was eager to insist on the distinction with Lone Twin per se -- go next, as there's something fascinating about watching a company with only a little theatre nous but loads of performance experience deal with the situational frames and challenges of theatre. Alice Bell is a terrific start in many ways. But it makes me wonder how they presently assess what doesn't work, and whether they have the authorial stomach for addressing it. I'm just not sure.
And unsure is at best how I felt about John Moran and his Neighbour, Saori, late night downstairs at Aurora Nova. It was my last free night (having booked up stuff for the very last night of the festival well in advance) and I'd thought I would go back to Apollo/Dionysus and see if a second viewing helped me follow the last half hour. But pals had been glowing about John Moran and insisting that he was unmissable, so in the end I decided the better path is almost always to go see something new over something you've seen before. Well, my dears, I'm sure you can imagine how unusual it is for the Controlling Thompson to be outflanked to the left, but on this occasion I have to admit defeat. I just didn't get it.
And it may well just be me. (Well, me and, saints preserve us, the reviewer from Three Weeks.) Moran has been described in extraordinary terms -- as a genius, a revolutionary, as the future of music theatre -- by a whole lot of people who ought to know. Philip Glass thinks Moran is the most important composer of his generation or something. At the very least therefore I'm weirded out and kind of sorry not to have come across Moran at all before now -- he's exactly the kind of downtown NY artist who I'd have thought would have hit my radar ages ago. He's certainly a fascinating figure, the arc of whose career somewhat echoes that of Tim Miller (to whom I was talking a few weeks ago on this blog), having reached the painful end of a line with his largescale multimedia pieces and taken recourse to more individually distinctive smallscale fringe works ever since.
It is Saori, the neighbour, who we meet first. I have to admit, right off the bat, I have a much higher threshold for kooky Asian chicks than most of the Aurora Nova crowd, but she seemed like fun, and I went with it. She introduced Moran, who came out and made a frazzled introductory speech which it quickly became clear was actually on tape, and he was lipsynching. (Maybe it's not so clear from a few rows back. I genuinely don't know.) Saori did a chalkboard drawing of a duck, again and again, and she was lipsynching too. Moran did an excerpt from an opera about the Manson Family. I had no idea what was going on, but we're only ten minutes in at this point and I'm still just about on the side of bemused rather than turned-off.
Thing is, that's it. That's the basic technology. Apart from a brief hiatus for a song with guitar ("It's a funny sort of song, isn't it?", says Moran, but if you've grown up listening to Edward Barton or early Palace or Jandek then, y'know, it's really not so funny -- quite sweet and tender, but not as odd as I think we're supposed to think... is it?), that's what the pair of them do. They lipsynch to stuff on tape. Cut-ups of dialogue from movies and tv programmes, and sound effects and so on. All, I'm sure, very carefully and precisely assembled, as Moran continually explains. But the whole next part of that sentence is missing. This is not something you do, surely? This is something you do in order to... [fill in the blank]. At worst, it's like juggling, it's something difficult you do because it's difficult but you get really good at it and people applaud. The thing is, the sound cut-ups thing, it's not that difficult, it's just laborious, and the lip-synching thing only appears virtuosic if you do it faultlessly, which they don't: which is why Moran has to keep reminding us how difficult it is, how hard the pieces are to learn, how busy they are counting in their heads all the time. (Actually, my experience of using precision-synch in pieces like Puckerlips and Quirkafleeg is that if you're counting, you're dead in the water, but I guess each to his own.) The fundamental question remains. What is this for? What is our role in this, except to admire it, and/or validate it? The lowpoint comes with Moran announcing a "cover version". Saori begins to perform a lipsynch routine set in a fast food restaurant, and after two minutes or so, Moran starts to sing 'Danny Boy' over it. There are roof-raising hollers and hoots from the rest of the audience. I'm by now feeling stupefied at the hollow vacancy and facetiousness of the whole thing.
The best, and most extended, sequence comes at the end. It begins with a fake record player not-playing a fake recording of Moran playing the opening of Bach's Goldberg Variations. He reveals that the recording has been assembled out of samples of single notes. Now, I'm not sure that's quite true, I'm pretty sure there are couplets in there at least, the phrasing would almost certainly be physically impossible otherwise, but even if it's true, again, what's the point? He does the reveal; what are we supposed to do with the information? Maybe we marvel at his industry. Maybe we are struck by the complexity of Bach and by extension all things. Like, wow. I'm sort of wondering why the greatest composer of his generation is whiling away his days on a Duchampian (or K. Goldsmithian) prank-object. But, ok, it's slightly wonky Bach, that's completely fine as a proposition. Over this he layers first Saori lipsyching and moving through a looped re-enactment of her hanging out in his apartment; and then a version of a Neil Young song which happens to fit snugly with the Bach. As the layers accumulate and Saori's performance loops on, I will admit that a certain melancholic tone starts to well up in the room, and I can see how at a structural level this is very close to a lot of work I've made, using stacked looped sound and untethered repetitive text. So by the end I can at least see the appeal. The problem I have and that I don't think is soluble is with the lip-synching, even as it relates to a recreation of real-life experience rather than fragments of movies and whatever. Take away the performative challenges of it, which are not after all that steep and really don't interest me anyway, and it's just too fetishistic to be theatrical. Theatre is a wonderful forum for memorial, or for invoking loss. But to use it to resist the passing of ephemera is a kind of vandalism. A looping recreation is not a memorial, it's an effigy. John Moran seems to be a sweet and rather fragile man (who clearly has many adoring fans at Aurora Nova), and he clearly finds what he's doing, and above all what Saori's doing, to be beautiful and meaningful, and I wouldn't want to prevent him. But I think it's fucked up, in the same way (though admittedly not to the same degree) that a serial killer may presumably feel genuine love for the corpse in his closet or a poignant affection for the body parts in his freezer.
At any rate Moran has absolutely got under my skin -- I've thought about that piece very frequently in the few days since I saw it -- and I want to say here first, right now, for the record, that I can well imagine being his biggest fan in eighteen months time. But I also want to say that I think it's very, very unlikely. John Moran and his Neighbour Saori is the anti-Traces; that says it all.
(Altogether: Who's Saori now...? ...OK, yeah, I just spunked on the high-ground.)
Finally for the live stuff, three extraordinary solo performers who lifted the final long weekend into the stratosphere for me (& I think for Lucy, who came with me to all of these and was the perfect travelling companion and stargazing pal throughout).
Dick Gaughan, who I always make a point of seeing if I can, ever since my first Fringe back in '94, was restoring and inspiring as ever. He's one of my favourite singers in any mode or genre, and a jaw-breakingly awesome guitarist, still best known for his legendary 1981 album Handful of Earth, from which some of his set's highlight songs are taken, especially the time-stopping 'Now Westlin Winds'. I've seen him every year since 2003 and every year his version of Pete Seeger's 'Waist Deep in the Big Muddy' becomes angrier and more chilling: no song more aptly describes the level of delusion and maniacal arrogance that has propelled our devastating misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Gaughan is a great, great man, a figure of incendiary talents and a breadth of compassion and impatience that sets him squarely among my (few) heroes. So I hope his cold's cleared up by now.
And then the last night of term was a slightly curious double-bill (separated by wolfed-down sausage at Monster Mash, where I swear the service and the cooking get slower every year). First, Stewart Lee, who I've never seen live before though I'm a longtime fan. (At least, of everything but Jerry Springer: The Opera.) There aren't many stand-ups who you could genuinely call artists, who elevate their form to a level where, like the great jazz players that Lee reveres, their technical skill spells out the gloriously elastic terms of their freedom. My ribs hurt after just fifteen minutes; and a pre-closing routine so brilliantly nails the torturous, inert, masturbatory desolation of Richard Littlejohn, it's almost unwatchable and certainly almost beyond funny, in the bleak hinterland which Bill Hicks knew, the blasted heath. Then it's, yeah, sausage; then an ill-advised but necessary sprint across Bristo Square and its teeming environs for an audience with Camille O'Sullivan at the Spiegeltent. I don't think there's anything I can say about Camille. Every comparison is invidious, every description platitudinous. She's by some way the most luminously beautiful, remorselessly captivating singer I've ever seen. (& I saw Chris Rea at the Bristol Hippodrome in 1986 so I know whereof I speak. You better believe it.) She reduces you -- me -- us, I think -- to a wild animal, baying for her. These exquisitely poised renditions of Brel and such; and yet just below the rice-paper thinness of that charmed exterior, there's blood and sex and agony. And a bottle and a half of wine. What can you do but howl at the moon for love of her and everything she represents? (PS Props to her storming band, too.)
I now seem to have been writing this post for longer than the month I'm trying to describe. Happily (from that point of view, at least) I completely failed to see any more art: not the Warhol, which even Warholaphobes seem to have found revelatory; nor the Richard Long, nor the William Eggleston; not even the highly intriguing pairing of Francesca Woodman and Richard Serra at the Ingleby Gallery. So there's none of that to account for.
All that needs dealing with, then, is the film festival. (A trifle! Dear hearts, a trifle!)
John Waters's This Filthy World is simply a movie of a one-man show that he's evidently been touring around theatres and campuses for some time, in which he talks about his life and career and exposes us to his worldview. I've seen a lot more stills of Waters and a lot more print articles than I have, say, tv interviews with him, so I think my thumbnail impression of him was as someone rather soigne and lugubrious: but au contraire, Claire, he's really animated and perky and what comes across terrifically well is the genuine and apparently guileless and unironic joy he finds in the endless varieties of deviance and filthiness upon which he lavishes his personal and professional attentions. So that when he riffs on capital punishment or 'blossom' fetishists (don't click that, just don't) or on Michael Jackson masturbating over a child in the Neverland Burns Unit, his contagious glee smooths everything over: what's truly subversive about Waters is not that he's so offensive, but that he's so not.
What's really striking, both in the movie itself and in the forty minute Q&A to which Waters submits himself after the screening, is his immense courteousness and patience (in the face of a pretty bewildering and almost scary barrage of freakazoid gibbering from his Edinburgh fans, who seem all to be either terminally gauche or off their tits, or both). You realise, as with Warhol (whom Waters namechecks frequently and admiringly both in the film and in the Q&A) -- and in fact as with almost everyone worth liking, that the bracingly independent spirit and restless artistic exploration that have informed his life and work are features of an underlying intellectual and sensual curiosity that -- like socialism -- are simply extensions of good manners. Waters has the best line of the month, naturally, offering these wise words to live by: "If you go home with someone, and they don't have any books: don't fuck them." Amen to that. Can Mr Waters get a witness?
Two documentaries of note. Comrades in Dreams, which was the almost-random freebie in my "buy six tickets, get the 7th free" shopping basket, is a genuinely lovely, quietly enthralling film about four people who run little cinemas in, respectively, the US (Wyoming), India, Burkina Faso and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. The film takes plenty of time and pushes no agenda: certainly there's no glib undercurrent, as you might anticipate, of "it's a small world after all". These four cultures are so utterly different and the role that cinema plays in each is also somewhat different. I was particularly glad of the insight into life in North Korea; I've no idea about the political views of the director but he certainly made life under Juche look hugely attractive. I was almost ready to pack my bags. (Figured it was worth just checking out the relevant Amnesty briefings first. Have decided on reflection to stick with the Democratic People's Republic of Stoke Newington.)
LYNCH, meanwhile, is a documentary following not Shane, not Kenny, but diddy David Lynch through the pre-production and filming of his masterpiece Inland Empire. The film is visually rich, appropriately disarming, and not too hagiographic (though everyone else in the cinema seemed more charmed by Lynch's gruff and intempererate moments than I was). Worth catching if it pops up near you. I can't say much else except that I didn't find it particularly interesting, but I think that was my fault rather than the movie's (or Lynch's himself). I was really tired and sitting much too close, the sound was really unnecessarily loud (as it often is in the Cameo, much though I love it there) and I didn't have a great time. I'm also not quite sure what I wanted. I mean, what is there to know about David Lynch that you wouldn't actually sort of rather not know? Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, that's my motto.
Film of the season, though, for me, and honestly one of the most immediately impressive films I think I've ever seen, was the new Gus van Sant, Paranoid Park. I hardly want to say anything except that if you love your Controlling Thompson at all, or yourself, or life as we know it, you will hurry to see this movie when it comes to a cinema near you in due course. Advance word was that this was van Sant pursuing the aesthetic of Elephant and Last Days sort of beyond its elastic limit -- yeah, Gus, we know you can do this now, time for something else... But what's vitally exciting and engrossing about Paranoid Park is that for the first time van Sant achieves a really new synthesis between the look and the language of those recent movies and the world and the feel of My Own Private Idaho and Good Will Hunting.
It's all set around a near-mythical (though actually real) Portland skate-park, and it manages to be both a sort of teen psychodrama and a nearly abstract meditation on fiction and the unknowable image of adolescence. So, for example, the repetitiousness that's used to such effect in Elephant (to create a sense of accumulating dread and atomisation) and Last Days (where it serves to disturb any coherent sense of timeline or propulsion) becomes a device that amplifies the whodunnit, or rather the whathappenedanyway, giving us repeated passes at a narrative that starts out nebulous and becomes ever more detailed and yet at the same time more and more enigmatic. The non-professional cast, drawn from MySpace, ground the whole thing in a familiar world, and yet nothing -- even the most intimate moments or the most sustained close-ups on faces and bodies -- feels close. Christopher Doyle's cinematography is consistently astounding and the painterly quality of van Sant's vision has never been more strongly expressed, but at the same time it's more dynamic and perhaps more accessible than, say, Last Days, which I adored but which a lot of people seem to have found unwelcoming.
Most interesting of all is the way in which Paranoid Park quickly becomes available to metanarrativistic reading. This is going to sound really wanky but... it seems to me that, just as the title Paranoid Park is bound to trigger a certain paranoia in the audience, so the paranoid world of the skatepark (which functions like a fairytale forest or island, an ironised space that presents a quintessential liminality in the 'test' it proposes to the hero) becomes nearly coterminous with the space of the film itself, in that the whole narrative, we know, is being written by the main character in a school exercise book. So we are never allowed to forget the avowed fictionality of the events and even of the total world we're engaged with. Not only do we question the 'reality' of the narrative, and whether what we're being told and shown ever actually 'really' happened to these characters, or whether it's just one kid's creative writing homework getting out of hand; more abysmally than that, the film seems to become aware of itself as a fiction, and to develop within itself a kind of insistent paranoia: it knows it is itself the park, and that the park is itself the film. (How's my driving?) Even on a first viewing, the film seems full of quotes back to previous van Sant films. I won't itemise the ones I spotted, except to say that the film only ends after the exercise book, which has implicitly contained all of the dialogue we've heard from the start, is burnt in an ad hoc fire; it's very hard not to think at that point of the iconic Idaho campfire, in which, famously, much of van Sant's scripted dialogue was 'destroyed' by the actors' insistence that they'd prefer to improvise the scene. All of Paranoid Park seems to be haunted by just this sense of filmic artifice -- even to the extent of van Sant overlaying many scenes, from about a third of the way in, with music from other films, such as Fellini's Amarcord and Juliet of the Spirits. I'm not so sure I like that; it's certainly jarring, but I guess that's exactly what it's for. Perhaps this is the rather arch van Sant of the despised Psycho remake peeking through. But here, in this context, it feels like the strategy of a mature and confident director at the height of his daring and inventiveness, rather than the freakout of a maverick artist finding himself at a dead-end.
I will always hold My Own Private Idaho in very high regard and the deepest of affection, and I'm certain that Last Days, more than Elephant perhaps, will eventually be more widely recognized as a film of immense beauty and courage; but honestly, Paranoid Park is Gus van Sant's greatest film to date, and leaves this fan asthmatically wondering where on earth he'll go next. It's an awesome achievement, full stop, end para.
OK, that's that, kids. August is dead. Now let's do the future.